Boeing 737 MAX stages test flight to regain confidence ahead of comeback

By Rahul Vaimal, Associate Editor
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The American aerospace company Boeing’s 737 MAX staged its first post-grounding flight with media on board, as carriers seek to demonstrate to passengers that the redesigned jet is safe after a 20-month safety ban.

European budget airline Ryanair is expected to place a hefty order for up to 75 additional 737 MAX jets in another gesture of good faith, industry sources said.

The recent American Airlines 737 MAX flight was a 45-minute hop from Dallas, Texas, to Tulsa, Oklahoma in the US. It comes weeks before the first commercial passenger flight on December 29, and is part of a public relations (PR) effort to allay any concerns about the aircraft.

Safety concerns

In March 2019, Boeing’s best-selling jet was grounded after two crashes killed a combined 346 people in five months, marking the worst safety crisis in decades in the industry and weakening US aviation regulatory leadership, Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

The trip also marked the first time anyone besides regulators and industry personnel flew on the MAX since the grounding, which ignited investigations focusing on software that overwhelmed pilots.

In the light of COVID-19 pandemic that has roiled commercial aviation, each of the roughly 90 journalists, flight attendants and other American Airlines employees on the flight wore face masks.

“The history of aviation is built around a chain of safety,” Captain Pete Gamble told passengers just before takeoff. “When the chain of safety breaks it’s up to those of us in the industry to mend it and bring it back.”

It was following design changes and new training that the FAA cleared the aircraft last month. For Boeing’s image and finances, which have been hit hard by a freeze on MAX deliveries as well as the coronavirus crisis, a smooth return to service for the MAX is seen as crucial.

Hundreds of billions of dollars have been spent by airlines and leasing firms purchasing the new update of the 737, the most-sold passenger aircraft in the world.

Some airlines are now jumping in to show commercial support, attracted by sharp discounts and eager to help restore the credibility of the MAX on which they have built their fleet plans.

PR efforts

Boeing is bracing for intense publicity from even routine glitches by manning a 24-hour “situation room” to monitor every MAX flight globally, and has briefed some industry commentators on details on the return to service, industry sources said.

“We are continuing to work closely with global regulators and our customers to safely return the fleet to commercial service,” a Boeing spokesman said. Brazil’s Gol Linhas Aereas Inteligentes is planning a media event for the redesigned MAX this month.

The PR efforts are intended to highlight software and training upgrades that the FAA has said have eliminated any concerns about the safety of the aircraft.

But family members of the crash victims have opposed the return to service, arguing it is premature before a final investigation report has been released on the second crash in Ethiopia.

As the crisis dragged on longer than it planned, Boeing toned down its original plans for the return of the plane by scrapping a high-profile publicity campaign, a ceremony and a tour using an Oman Air 737 MAX, industry sources said.